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18-day cut idea draws parents' fire

Parents on Tuesday urged the Medford School District to avoid cutting school days to make up for a possible $7 million deficit this school year, emphasizing that Oregon already has one of the shortest school years in the nation.

"I'm very concerned that it seems the first thing looked at is school days," said parent Jodi Ann Johnson, a former teacher.

"I would hate to see this district be one month shorter than other states. The children of Oregon will not be able to keep up."

The public forum weighing on possible cuts drew a sparse turnout, but the few who spoke had strong ideas about what the district should and shouldn't do to balance the budget.

"With the number of days discussed to be cut, my biggest concern is how this going to affect students' preparation for the SATs," said parent Katherine McUne. "This is the concern: math, science and English."

The Medford district's projected shortfall equals about 18 calendar days or 100 positions, though the district is considering other cuts to help reduce those figures, school officials said. It already has sheared $1.3 million in expenses by reducing administrators' salaries, restricting supplies and materials, reducing travel and forbidding the use of some electronic appliances at schools.

"I don't believe the all-or-nothing approach — 18 days or 100 positions — is the best approach," said parent Kurt Chapman.

The district could make small cuts instead, Chapman said, such as closing schools on Fridays and adding 45 minutes to Mondays through Thursdays to save on utilities and fuel and canceling summer school.

Chapman said state lawmakers should release the $400 million Education Stability Fund this year to help keep schools afloat instead of saving it for the next biennium as Gov. Ted Kulongoski has suggested.

"Next year there may be nothing left to stabilize," he said.

Chapman also suggested scaling back teachers' medical and retirement benefits since the teachers' employment contract is still open and in negotiations, sending only the athletic teams who rank first or second to state competitions and auditing the district's busing service.

"We are doing things to chip away at that ($7 million deficit) before we cut school days," said School Board Member Larry Nicholson. "Unless the situation worsens, we won't cut 18 days. We intended that number to hit home and tell you how bleak the situation is."

The state is facing an estimated $800 million revenue shortfall primarily because of the daily loss of jobs, and state lawmakers have suggested that number could climb in the next revenue forecast Friday.

Medford and other districts around the state won't know the exact state funding losses until the Oregon Department of Education uses the revenue forecast to estimate the districts' share of funds.

Oregon has been reducing its funding to schools since 1990, said School Board Member Paulie Brading.

"It has only gotten worse," Brading said. "It's not just the Titanic sinking. We have an entire fleet of Titanics sinking."

Reach reporter Paris Achen at 541-776-4459 or pachen@mailtribune.com.